Thursday, November 16, 2006

[This is the essay version]

2001: It was September 15 before I came into Manhattan again, after the Towers fell. Noel and I met up that evening and walked around looking to see who was on the streets of downtown, meaning the (mostly East) Village. We talked to folks in Tompkins Square Park and near St. Mark’s Church, but Union Square was the largest gathering; that must have been the night that I realized that Union Square had transformed into a sort of peace park. What may have started as a place to burn candles to the memory of the dead and post signs in search of the missing had either simultaneously or subsequently evolved into a place for New Yorkers to go and be together, be peaceful, be vocal, be outraged, be bewildered, be wounded, be informed.

Union Square right after 9/11 was signs covering every inch of fencing, was signs looking for loved ones, was signs expressing great sadness, was signs pleading against war, was hundreds of people making full use of available public space, was photographs and poems and prayers and flowers and votive candles and melted wax covering the area around the statue on the 14th Street side, was groups singing peace songs peacefully, was people having discussions, was people asking questions, was people hashing things out, was people staying up all night, was people sleeping on the grass so as not to be alone.

In the same way that 9/11 was ambiguous enough not to have earned a more descriptive name, Union Square after 9/11 was a collage-in-progress at a moment when no one was quite sure what had just happened, when the next thing might happen, what our government was going to do or not do about it, and how much more vulnerable any aggressive action might make all of us. It was also a moment when New York had been officially invited into America, in an extreme way. Heartland church-goers were offering us prayers and tears from afar, claiming us as their own; the news kept saying ATTACK ON AMERICA; the hijakers had clearly targeted the U.S.; and the City’s cab drivers and immigrant businesses were suddenly displaying huge American flags. It was an uneasy moment in the City, from several directions, to say the least.

(One particularly memorable sign [which later became the name of a poetry journal] said “USA OUT OF NYC.” Another with a similar sentiment used the metaphor of America as the bullying high school friend who always gets you into trouble you didn’t ask for.)

September 15, 2001: My return to Manhattan, and to my job, began a week in which I saw my customers open up with concern and well-wishing for me and for each other. It was the week I put away a long-standing love-hate relationship with New York City. It was the week I realized that New Yorkers had hearts and knew how to use them; that people had hearts and knew how to use them; that strangers had hearts and knew how to use them. It was the week I decided to stop second guessing the city that had been my home for almost eight years, and get on with the business of living and creating there instead.

It was the week that I began to dissolve several months of artistic stagnation: for the next three years I wrote prolificly, a fact which I attribute in large part to the chance to work with New York Nights and Theaters Against the War (THAW). Each of these entities, like Union Square, was a collage-in-progress, and a forum for creative folks of an anti-war mindset to come together and share and voice ideas. New York Nights is a newspaper of anti-war discussion and poetry that was first published in October 2001, in response to the U.S. decision to bomb Afghanistan. The paper was run monthly for the first few years and is less frequent more recently, now that many more voices have joined the anti-war conversation. In 2002, Theaters Against the War started a monthly variety show called “Freedom Follies” which featured everything from comedy to singer-songwriters to scene readings to performance art to poetry. I had many a cathartic laugh at the Freedom Follies, which were free of charge and often played in buildings that were slated to be soon-demolished.

I wonder why Union Square became THE catch-all place for such a gathering as this? Was it the first place people dared to stop and catch their breath when they were walking north from the World Trade Center? (Was it a place to breathe because it was the first park north of, free of, the acrid smell of barbequed metal that hung over lower Manhattan for months afterwards?) Was it because it was the psychological border point between downtown and no-longer-downtown? Or was this spot inevitable because it was the meeting place of so many train lines? The L, the N/R, the B/D/Q, the 4/5/6, bringing people together from Astoria, the Bronx, Sunset Park, Queens Plaza, Coney Island, Williamsburg, the Upper East Side, Fort Greene.

Mayor Guiliani chose to close down this fertile use of public space, exactly two weeks after September 11th, and in no uncertain terms. First it was finding the candle wax meticulously scraped away each morning by City Parks workers, then it was keeping the people out completely (by police or by heavier fencing, I can’t recall now). And when the Christmas-shopping flea market appeared in Union Square as scheduled in November, it was as if Peace Park had never even happened at all.

But Peace Park did happen. From what I observed in New York, a Union Square of the mind (heart, and vocal cords) was alive and particularly well between September 11, 2001 and November 3, 2004.

New York Nights:



Blogger Sean Maloy Eno said...

I had always heard that Union Square was historically the go-to place for protest and rallies, but what I just learned today is, according to the Wikipedia: "In April 1861, soon after the fall of Fort Sumter, Union Square was the site of a patriotic rally that is thought to have been the largest public gathering in North America up to that time." I wonder if early skateboard ancestors were there in 1861?

7:58 AM  

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